April 20, 2016 / 11:21 PM / 4 years ago

In Vietnam, outrage and optimism as party thwarts democratic experiment

HANOI (Reuters) - Schoolteacher Do Viet Khoa loves dogs, even though a puppy he once owned cost him his chance to run in Communist Vietnam’s upcoming parliamentary election.

Teacher Do Viet Khoa plays with his dog at his hometown in Thuong Tin, outside Hanoi, Vietnam, April 19, 2016. REUTERS/Kham

Khoa was eliminated during the ruling Communist Party’s tough vetting process for independent candidates. Most of the 75 constituents hand-picked by the party to attend his public hearing declared him unsuitable to be a lawmaker.

What swayed their vote, Khoa said, was when the party chief of his commune spoke out against his dog.

“He complained about my dog shitting in front of the door of my neighbor’s house,” he told Reuters. “It’s ridiculous.”

Khoa, 48, actually gave away his mischievous puppy before applying to contest a seat in the legislature, which is tightly controlled by the Communist Party.

“Why was I hindered when I played by the rules?”, he said.

More than 100 Vietnamese - an unprecedented amount - tried to run in the May 22 election as independents, including activists bent on testing the party’s sincerity about fostering inclusiveness and a democratic spirit.

But almost all the self-nominated candidates in Hanoi failed to get on the ballot. The two who passed vetting in Hanoi were directors of medical and environmental research institutes run by the government.

Like Khoa, who said neighbors were told to vote against him, many independents complained the Vietnam Fatherland Front, an umbrella group of the party’s social organizations, had rigged the process to keep ordinary people out.

Vietnam’s election commission has yet to respond to questions about the elimination of independents. The full list of approved candidates will be finalised next week for the five-yearly election, the only national poll the public votes in.

Nguyen Dinh Nam, who runs a tech company, won approval of 99 percent of constituents at his hearing. He said they voted with a show of hands rather than risk manipulation of a secret ballot, but he still didn’t make the cut.

“You don’t like outsiders in the system - the trust of 99 percent of people is not as important as your plan?” he wrote in a Facebook swipe at the Fatherland Front.

A surprise loser was Tran Dang Tuan, 59, former deputy director of state-run broadcaster VTV, who runs another cable TV channel and had hoped as a lawmaker to promote poverty alleviation and higher journalism standards. Tuan failed, even though he had unanimous support at his meeting.


Singer Mai Khoi, who has upset conservatives with her sexy attire and braless performances, was the most high-profile independent. Dubbed “Vietnam’s Lady Gaga”, she is still waiting to hear her fate.

She says non-party candidates have been cheated and has sent an invitation to U.S. President Barack Obama to meet her when he visits Vietnam next month, so she can discuss the election issue, and sing for him.

“I want to talk about how the United States can help to improve our laws on elections and political participation,” Mai Khoi said. “These results demonstrate the party does not care what the people think.”

The 4.5 million-member Communist Party has monopolized all levels of power for 41 years. That includes the 500-seat National Assembly, which has a small minority of non-party lawmakers endorsed by state institutions.

Only six people backed outspoken intellectual and former IT entrepreneur Nguyen Quang A at his hearing, despite his campaign receiving a frenzy of Facebook likes and voter endorsements.

The six votes were his relatives and one fan.

Slideshow (4 Images)

Quang A, 69, said local officials ran a smear campaign against him and told the hearing he was an unfriendly neighbor.

“They stuck to the same ways as 30 years ago, even though pressure from underneath them is far stronger now,” he said.

“It started a debate among young people, so I’m very optimistic. This was a small step in a long, difficult, but bright journey ahead.”

Reporting by Martin Petty; Additional reporting by My Pham; Editing by Michael Perry

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